It was always expected that two Tennessee basketball players would be on preseason watch lists for player of the year, but the two who made the Naismith Watch List was a bit shocking. One of the two wasn’t even a starter last year and isn’t some highly touted freshman phenom.
Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler are both on the 2023 Jersey Mike’s Naismith Trophy Preseason Watch List. It makes sense that Vescovi would be on the list. After all, he is a rising senior who has averaged 11.2 points per game for his career.
Last year, Vescovi was second on the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game, leader among all returning Tennessee basketball players. He has started at all three backcourt positions throughout his career and was by far the most efficient player for the Vols.
Simply put, Vescovi is no shock. Zeigler, however, is a shock. Now, Zeigler is expected to take over for Kennedy Chandler as the Vols’ starting point guard this year. However, he averaged just under nine points, over two and a half assists and over one and a half steals a game last year.
Although there are expectations for Zeigler to take a step forward, he seemed a year away from competing for this player of the year award. Part of that is the number of players who would be looked to as scoring options before Zeigler. This just seems like a leap.
That’s not to knock Zeilger, by the way. He’s going to be the glue guy this year. Defense, toughness and heart define him, and he’s also very athletic and an efficient scorer, so he’s earned his way into being a fan favorite. Those things don’t suggest winning this award.
The reason Zeigler being on the list is curious is Josiah-Jordan James being left off the list. James is Tennessee basketball’s defensive specialist and was third on the team in scoring last year, averaging 10 points, six rebounds, one block and nearly one and a half steals a game.
After Olivier Nkamhoua went down with a season-ending injury, James moved to the four and allowed Rick Barnes to play small the rest of the year. Now, also coming back for his senior season, that development likely makes him the most complete player on the team.
Considering the fact that James was once a five-star, a 6’6″ athlete with his potential who has spent three years in Barnes’ system seems like somebody who could be lethal. Three-point shooting is all that held him back last year, as he was 32.4 percent.
However, if James can up that five percentage points this year, he could be the most complete player in the nation. As a result, he should have definitely been on this list, especially since he’s probably going to end up being the leader of this team.
In general, putting James, Vescovi and Zeigler all on this list would’ve been fine. However, if only two Tennessee basketball players would be on it, James and Vescovi made more sense than Vescovi and Zeigler. All three will play a crucial role for the Vols this year, though.